LET’S TRY to figure how far the Pistons will go in the playoffs.

First let’s try to figure whom they’ll play in the playoffs.

Well, before that, let’s try to figure whether they’ll make the playoffs.

Maybe we should figure out the playoffs.

You see the problem.

Take Wednesday night at the Palace, which signaled the start of the last week of this insane, breakneck regular season. We could read something into the Pistons’ winning their third straight game. Then again, it was against New Jersey. We could read something into their never-quit, never-stop attitude. Then again, Jerome Williams was the only player who showed that.

You see the problem.

“Here it is, the last week of the season,” I said to Grant Hill, after the Pistons pretty much assured themselves a spot somewhere in the playoff mix with a 101-93 win over the lowly Nets, “and do you have any sense of who this team really is?”

“No,” he admitted, “I really don’t. We can look really good, and we can look really bad.”

He shrugged. “And we can do it in the same game.”

Wednesday was a good example. The Pistons came out with the intensity of a sponge. Their defense — which everyone says is their fulcrum — was left in the locker room next to the VCR. They surrendered 32 points in the first quarter. I didn’t think NBA teams were allowed to do that anymore. Isn’t 32 points a halftime score — or, if you’re the Knicks, a final?

Yet for all the laissez-faire in the first half, the Pistons found a sweet spot in the second. Joe Dumars, playing out his career with the grace of a DiMaggio, dragged his team back into it with a three-point-basket flurry, five treys in the third quarter alone. Jud Buechler made some critical long-range baskets in the fourth. And Williams, the whirling dervish, kept pounding the boards, earning a career-high 15 rebounds.

“The way Jerome is offensive-rebounding,” coach Alvin Gentry said, “if we throw the ball up and miss it, it’s almost like running a play for him.”

Then again, that means you have to keep missing for him to score.

You see the problem.

Uneven effort despite victory

“I’m disappointed,” Hill said after the win. “We talked about coming out and maybe winning this game by 20. We’re playing New Jersey, their leading scorer
(Keith Van Horn) is out, you figure if we can get up on them, we can put them away early.

“But sure enough, true to form, we got down, and we had to battle back. I don’t know why we don’t have the intensity we should when we should.”

To be fair, the Pistons are not alone in this dilemma. The entire NBA season is a leaky balloon, choking out air, trying desperately to land on earth and not in the water. Teams are gasping. Limping. They seem to barely have a clue whom they’re playing, before they’re on a plane to play someone else. One of the problems with a 50-game season jammed into a sardine can is that there is no time for long-range strategy. No way to know whom to rest, whom to get up for. Every game matters, but you can’t play every game the same.

Which is why you see teams that were cruising early now struggling at the finish. And why you see preseason favorites — like New York and Seattle — struggling to stay above water. And why this morning, with less than a week to go, the Pistons could be a middle-of-the-pack playoff entrant, taking on a team like Atlanta, or they could be the franchise that barely squeaks under the barbed wire, lining up as a sacrifice for Miami or Indiana.

Then again, the Pistons have played the Heat and Pacers pretty well.

You see the problem.

At least they’re playoff-bound

In the hallway after the game, a somewhat relieved-looking Gentry leaned against the wall as his players headed for their cars. Although no one really celebrated it, this was a benchmark moment for the young coach. Last year, under his command, the Pistons missed the playoffs altogether. Now, at least, they have (apparently) made the cut. That may not seem like much to the fans of the Bad Boys days. But for Gentry, it’s a start.

“We said at the beginning of the year we wanted to make the playoffs,” he said. “After that, we wanted to do as much damage as we could.”

What’s funny is that for all the lip-smacking we did when the Pistons made their “big” off-season moves — the acquisitions of Christian Laettner and Loy Vaught — this is pretty much the same group as last year. Laettner’s biggest opponent this year has been the injured list. And Vaught has had many nights on which Gentry hasn’t even asked him to take off his sweats. Truth be told, Buechler — with his three-point shooting — is the most valuable new acquisition.

Then again, last year’s group didn’t make the postseason, and this one will.

You see the problem.

Injuries, fatigue, weird travel, too many games, no time to think. Welcome to the NBA, 1999.

“It’s such a strange year,” Hill said, sighing. “It seems like we should be playing more.”

Please. We don’t have enough ice.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “ALBOM IN THE AFTERNOON,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760).

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This